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The cost of cruising

Mar 24, 2016

Analyzing six years of data

The wide range of currencies in use in the South Pacific.

The wide range of currencies in use in the South Pacific.

What do you think it costs to live your dream life cruising on a sailboat? For six years of full-time cruising, we’ve tracked every penny we have spent aboard our sailing boat. The key: It’s what we actually spent. Every boat is different. Every lifestyle is unique. Every priority list is varied. With that said, you can get a good idea about the actual costs of the cruising lifestyle with six years of actual data (2009-2014). 

We consider ourselves a middle-of-the-pack cruising boat with regards to spending. We eat well aboard the boat, but hunt for food bargains and go out occasionally — though rarely to high-end, white tablecloth restaurants. We opt for a nice anchorage rather than a marina. Our boat is maintained with regular haulouts, we carry lots of spares for repairs and we try to upgrade the boat’s systems whenever we do repairs. We do a lot less travel either back to the U.S. or inland (involving car rentals, hotels and excursions) than some other boaters. Seeing the various countries on our own boat is how we visit an area rather than leaving the boat in a marina and heading “inland.” We regularly attend local events to get the feel of a culture and country with the locals. 

What’s included? 
What is included is everything we have spent underway — from an ice cream cone on the street in Tonga to a major grocery run in Panama. The data includes all visits to a dentist or a festival; costs of a country’s flag or gift; the expense of a new set of bedding or gasoline for the outboard ... everything that we have spent while underway. We did some major boat repairs and lots of minor ones. Basic maintenance, including haulouts in foreign ports for bottom paint, plus boat improvements like new solar panels, batteries and a stainless steel custom-made arch are all included. We did take trips back to the U.S. from Panama, Marshall Islands and New Zealand — this is a line item that is quite hefty so we don’t do it annually. 

We have not accounted for inflation, so all the figures are what was actually spent in that particular year. Everything we spend is converted into U.S. dollars at the exchange rate we received at the time of the purchase.

What’s not included? 
The boat is a 1987 Moody 422. It is a 42-foot sloop. We bought the boat in 2004, its third owners, and prepared it for cruising. We had an Avon inflatable dinghy that we kept from our old boat (2000) and bought a new Yamaha 8-hp outboard before we began this cruise in 2009. The costs listed in this article do not include the actual cost of the boat, original dinghy or first outboard. Nor does it include outfitting it for long-term cruising. We had the boat for five years while we worked to build the cruising kitty and used that time to do a lot of boat projects to prepare her for the trip. We put on new rigging, a new headsail, dodger and Bimini, and new sheets, had the decks painted, added an electric windlass, a new stove, an SSB radio and did some basic maintenance on the engine. We re-installed our watermaker that we kept from our previous boat. We also stocked the boat with some needed spares and tools that are not included but were used during the six years in the data.

Other items excluded in the data include the first batch of consumables (oil, filters, etc.) plus charts, guidebooks and country courtesy flags that we scored at nautical flea markets. It also does not include the first provisioning, which was extensive — including cleaning supplies, garbage bags, toilet paper and paper towels, etc. We left with a full (though small) refrigerator and freezer, and the lockers were packed with canned goods, baking supplies and cleaning supplies (both personal laundry and housekeeping). 

We also do not include the cost of annual insurance on the boat or our health, as that is dependent on each boat and person and country. We do carry both boat insurance and health insurance — and this is a large percentage of our annual expenses — but to estimate your own costs you can use your own hard numbers for these items. 

A provisioning run in New Zealand that was paid for in NZ dollars.

The data
We’ve looked at the data in a variety of ways: annual expenses, expense by country visited and by broad categories. For example, the “food” category includes items you would normally buy in a first-world country grocery store. This would include laundry detergent, garbage bags, soaps and shampoos, zip-lock storage bags and cleaning supplies, as well as edibles like meat, canned goods, beer and wine, and fresh fruits and vegetables. We may have purchased the items in a traditional grocery store, at an open market or even from the fisherman or gardener. But, no matter where it was bought, it would go into that food and grocery category. The exception is “eating out,” which has its own category that would include all food or drink not consumed on the boat. This may be an ice cream cone on the street, a lunch or dinner out, or simply beers at happy hour. If it was consumed off the boat, it’ll be in what we labeled our “eating out” category. We also separated out various boat systems to give us a better idea on what our water system is costing us, as well as our propane cooking system. The dinghy has its own category, and this includes all the outboard costs: maintenance, repairs, a new engine in 2012, as well as gasoline and outboard oil.

The bottom line 
Even without inflation factored into the data, we had pretty consistent annual expenses aboard the boat. On average, we spend about $25,800 a year. The year 2013 was higher at $40,000 because of an expensive travel expense ($7,300) for a trip for two back to the U.S. from New Zealand, and for another round trip for one from the Marshall Islands. Plus, that same year we bought two new sails at $4,600. Traveling also adds costs in the moorage category as the boat has to be someplace safe to stay if both are leaving the vessel, so that was included in the 2013 figure as well. However, the average is a fair way to look at an annual expense. 

Our six-year annual average is $25,800.

Expenses by categories
Though we separated our spreadsheet in much more detail, for easier analysis we’ve taken several categories and added them together to get a look at the cost by broader category. 

Boat repairs, maintenance, improvements: If you have a lot of systems on board you have to spend money to maintain them. The size and age of your vessel will also have a lot to do with your own costs in this category. We took a hard look at the various systems aboard as well as the overall costs of boat maintenance. Though we separated out the boat’s needs into various categories on our spreadsheet (boat repairs, boat consumables, boat improvements plus systems like water, propane and the sail set-up) we’ve added these together to get an overall cost for maintaining and improving our boat. 

Our cruising philosophy regarding the boat is to keep it maintained for reliability and safety. We don’t spend an enormous amount of time or money on waxing and polishing!

Our numbers: We averaged just a little more then $8,400 a year over the six years. However, we had a low number in 2009 because we had a well-stocked and well-prepared vessel and higher numbers in the years when we purchased big-ticket items like sails or a new arch for the boat. 

A new Pactor HF modem was a large-ticket item but was well worth the expense as it gave Sobocinski and Hawkins the ability to communicate at sea.

Our six-year annual average for repairs, maintenance and improvements was $8,400.

Food, communication, clothing, household goods: These are costs you’d have whether cruising or living on land. On the boat, a lot depends on where in the world you cruise. Some countries are substantially less expensive than others for these basic items. A lot also depends on your own tastes and needs. If you delight in gourmet meals and must have specific brand items, you’ll pay for that luxury. If you download lots of movies and television shows or stay online for long periods of time, you’ll pay for the Internet. Need to be a fashion plate with lots of the latest clothes? Your costs will be much higher than ours! 

We eat well aboard Astarte, usually three meals a day. We eat a main meal that usually includes a meat or fish dish, which tend to be the more expensive food items aboard. Plus we enjoy “sundowners,” a cold brew or a bottle of wine — always under $10 — on many days. We don’t drink underway, and are often a tad seasick, so these are the days where we eat less expensively and that helps the overall average. 

In the communications category, we use the Internet for weather, banking and basic email. If in a country for more than a month, we usually buy a local SIM card for an unlocked cellphone and a small amount of pre-paid minutes. 

Regarding household goods, Astarte was well stocked with the necessary pots, pans, baking dishes, sheets and towels before we left. During the six years, we have had to buy a few frying pans, new sheets and towels and small utensils. 

The average for this group of basics was $6,500 annually.

The dinghy and diesel: We started with the Avon inflatable dinghy from our old boat that had a new Yamaha 8-hp outboard. We replaced the outboard in 2012 in Panama with a Tohatsu 9.8-hp. The costs in this category include all gasoline for the outboard, outboard oil and repairs to either the dinghy or outboard. It also is the cost of a new dinghy cover that Michael sewed. This is our car and the average cost annually has been a little more than $700 a year — not bad for a vehicle! However, in 2015, which is not included in these numbers, we did just purchase a new dinghy from Southern Pacific Inflatables for $2,100, so that average will go up considerably when we average out seven years of cruising!

These fishing lures were bought and paid for in Vanuatu’s currency of Vatus.

Our annual average for the dinghy was $700 per year.

Diesel is dependent on how much you motor and where you purchase the diesel. Our motto aboard has always been “Time we have, money we don’t,” so we do try to sail whenever and wherever we can. However, there are some passages where it is prudent to get into port before a big storm hits and that may mean putting on the engine. We do not have a generator on board, so this is strictly diesel for the Perkins 4-107 main engine. Luckily, we also don’t need to run the main engine to “charge up” as we have a good array of solar and wind power to save us the diesel dollars. Maintenance of the actual Perkins engine is included in the boat category — this is strictly the cost of diesel fuel.

Our six-year annual average for diesel fuel was $1,250. Note: The actual cost of engine maintenance is in the boat expense category.

Eating out, entertainment, souvenirs and local excursions: The easiest way to cut back on expenses is probably in this category. You don’t have to go out for a beer or ice cream or buy that cool carving. You can forego the thrill of watching land divers in Vanuatu or swimming with the sharks in French Polynesia. This would indeed save you some dollars, but you’d miss out on some fun. We try hard to balance the “chance of a lifetime” experiences with our budget. We do love ice cream though — giving that up might be too tough to handle! 

Our numbers: $2,700 annually. This category does not include travel back to the U.S.

Clearance fees, marinas/moorages and charts/flags/guidebooks: Fees for immigration, customs, biosecurity and others are dependent on where you go and if you do it yourself or use an agent. There are also costs attached to getting the right charts, chart chips, guidebooks and courtesy flags for each place you visit. In this category we also included the costs of marinas and moorings. It seems when we are checking into or out of a country is when we are most likely to take advantage of a facility to make that process easier — not to mention the ease of getting supplies and fuel before or after a passage. 

Our average cost annually was a little less than $2,000.

One of the fresh produce markets in Vanuatu.

Medical: We are lucky to have had a healthy six years. Neither of us needed expensive prescription drugs. Most of our costs are for routine dental cleanings, eyeglasses or medical supplies like aspirin or cut ointments. 

For this category, our six-year annual average was $700.

Travel back home: If you need or want to travel from where you are leaving the boat back to the U.S. or elsewhere, be prepared to spend some dollars. Either one or both of us have gone back to the States for a big 90th birthday, a wedding, a memorial service and a visit. This does cost a lot. One trip alone for the two of us to fly back from New Zealand to the U.S. was substantial, as we could not plan too far in advance for this particular emergency trip — but you have to be ready for that. 

The six-year average was $1,900 for airfare alone! 

Electronic gear (personal): We use computers, a scanner/printer, cameras and electronic readers (Kindles) aboard. We have had to replace them or upgrade them over the years. 

Our six-year annual average was $550.

Miscellaneous items: Small amounts have been spent on things like local transportation (mostly local busses), fishing gear (we lose a few lures), postage, laundry (mostly done in a bucket with the occasional laundromat) or bank fees for exchanging money. 

The six-year average for these items was around $1,100.

A pig roast at Lape Island, Tonga, cost 50 Pa’angas (Tongan currency) per couple.

Panama Canal passage: A one-time, once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list experience in 2011cost us $960. 

The surprises
We were surprised at how much we were spending on communication, an expense that seems to increase with each year. This is an indication that we are becoming more dependent on the Internet and cellphones out here, but it also makes sense because it’s become much easier to do banking, research repairs and call family on Skype. Many countries are also requiring advance notice for visiting. It has become imperative to do research on what is needed before heading to a new country. 

On the flip side, we were happily surprised that the food and basics category was lower than we imagined. Being willing to eat what is on sale or in season helps, and stocking up in countries that are less expensive for certain items worked for us. For example, while in Panama some cruisers mentioned to us how expensive personal hygiene products were in the Pacific Islands, so we stocked up on soaps, shampoos and toilet paper.

Barbara Sobocinski and Michael Hawkins have been cruising full time since 2009 aboard their Moody 422 Astarte.

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